In teaching kids to play classical music, I am sometimes asked by parents why their children aren’t practicing as much as they would like them to. Sometimes I find it is because for certain students, classical music is just not their first love. They need variety in their musical diet.

For just about all the kids I teach, learning musical styles from other nationalities is a great addition to their classical training. Music helps them begin to understand the history, culture and customs of people from around the world.

Exposing kids to various musical styles helps them appreciate our differences as well as the things we all have in common. Their eyes light up and their ears perk up when they hear the variety of styles that can be played on instruments common to folk traditions, such as the violin and ocarina.

The pocket-sized ocarina is truly a world instrument. It belongs to a family of wind instruments called vessel flutes that developed independently across ancient cultures worldwide, from China and India to South and Central America.

The word ocarina comes from Italy where the instruments were introduced to Europeans from the Americas in the 1800s. The ocarina was very popular in Italy and developed as part of the culture with a very distinct Italian sound.

The ocarina was popularized in the United States during the first and second World Wars, when servicemen were often issued the instrument. Later it fell into obscurity as other wind instruments took center stage. Today the ocarina is being discovered by a whole new generation.

The fact that the ocarina is easy to play and indigenous to many cultures makes it a great instrument for introducing kids to music. In developing instruction books for the ocarina, I include simple folk tunes from the United States, Japan, China and other countries.

At the St. Louis School of Music, I teach not only classical violin but also fiddle using the Mark O’Conner method. This provides a great way for kids, especially our many students from Asian and Indian backgrounds, to get introduced to American music and culture. By fiddling jazz, blues and even rock, they are exposed to the richness of our music and heritage.

Many students seem most excited when they are learning music of other cultures. This may be because they are used to classical music while folk music from around the world is new to them.

So we play a little jazz, some blues and a lot of celtic music, along with Jewish folk music, tango and mariachi. Our fiddle group gives kids a chance to really mix it up as they play styles from around the world, often with kids from different cultures.

Youngsters who have mastered the precision of a classical minuet love cutting loose with the rhythmic bowing in Irish and Scottish jigs and reels. It can even become a great motivator for students to stick with the classical lessons.

I have a couple of students who probably would have quit classical violin lessons years ago if we hadn’t gotten into fiddling. One student, for instance, got stuck trying to learn a minuet for about six months. Then I realized that what she needed was a change of pace.

We worked on music reading and got into fiddling and that lit the fire under her. Today she does a lot of fiddle playing and has even gotten back into classical music, playing violin at her church. She just needed something different to spark her interest.

Learning music together also gives kids a chance to make friends with people from backgrounds different from theirs. It is fun and sometimes surprising to see which kids form friendships.

These are valuable lessons as our opportunities to interact with people from around the world increase through the Internet. Kids learning to play ocarina in the U.S. swap lessons via YouTube with other young people learning in the Netherlands, England, Australia and China. They form communities even though they live in completely different parts of the world.

It is wonderful to see young people coming together worldwide from completely different cultures, playing for each other, giving each other virtual pats on the back. By teaching kids music in its many varieties, we open doors for them to build new friendships and to begin to experience the richness of our shared humanity.

Author's Bio: 

Laura Yeh is a performer and music educator trained in the Suzuki method of instruction who teaches violin and ocarina at the St. Louis School of Music to children as young as 3 and adults. Laura and her husband Dennis have collaborated with ocarina makers around the world to produce new models of the ocarina, an easy-to-learn wind instrument with ancient roots. They have designed and produced many unique and innovative ocarinas sold by STL Ocarina (